5 Common Beginner Mistakes (+How to Avoid Them)

Whatcha’ think?
Even if you’ve been playing for years,
I bet you’re still making some of these mistakes.
(Lord knows I’ve certainly been guilty of all of them.)
But these mistakes are SLOWING YOU DOWN, my friend!!
If you LEARN what the top mistakes are, you can AVOID THEM,
and cruise faster down the superhighway to become a harmonica boss.

You can check out my lesson with :notes: listening examples here.:tv:

:five: Playing in the wrong key

This is one of the reasons why, when band leaders are asked, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who plays harmonica, can he sit in on a song?” many will cringe.

I’ve been told several times by different band leaders at the end of night, “Hey, that was great - you were actually playing in the right key! ‘Cos there was this one harmonica guy…

(But we’re changing all that now, aren’t we?) :wink:

You have to know the key of the song you’re playing. If you don’t have the right key, you can’t play. Sorry. :cry:

When in doubt, sit it out.

But there’s no reason to be in doubt if you know the key of the song as long as you can figure out two things:

#1 will the sound of the position you’ll play in sound good with the song

#2 what key the position is relative to the key that your harmonica is

If you’re like many, you may be thinking right now, “I don’t even really understand what a position is.” Well if you’re dying to understand it, you can check out this forum thread.

But for now, the most fun thing is to listen to how different they sound here.

Can you hear the difference between 1st position and 2nd position?

2nd Position Sounds Bluesier.


By the way, 3rd, 4th, and 5th position are most often used for minor songs, 12th position is used for a major sound a la Stevie Wonder, and 6th position is played least of all.

But AT LEAST 90% of harmonica songs are in 1st or 2nd position, so usually they’re the ONLY ones you need to consider for the first few years of your journey.

It’s a cinch to figure out what key to play 1st position in on a song:

key of song = key of harmonica.

When playing in 2nd position it’s easy to get confused:

key of song = 4 letter names above the key of harmonica.

If you wanna understand that better, you can check out my Keys for Beginners lesson.

But THE EASIEST WAY to KNOW WHAT KEY harp you need for a song is to use a POSITIONS CHART.

You can right click on this image and download it, print it out, and put it in your harmonica case, your wallet, or your purse.

Or if you’re ever in a pinch, just type into Google: “harmonica position chart” and you’ll have your answer.

:four: Not Listening

LISTENING is foundational to how we experience music.

Hands down the MOST IMPORTANT SKILL you can develop as a musician.

Becoming a better active listener will help you in every area of your musicianship (and your life!):wink:

Music, at its best, is a conversation between the musicians.

Soloing at an inappropriate time (when someone else is singing or soloing) is a symptom of failure to listen.

We have TWO ears: ONE to hear ourselves, and ONE to hear others.

Let’s try and open both ears and hear the bigger picture!

If we listen well to others, and always serve the song, people will always want us to play music with them. You can check out a couple tips to improve your listening game here.

:three: Rushing

The mistake of Rushing manifests in 2 ways:

#1 Rushing to Get Better :x:

Most people don’t want to SLOW DOWN, take a deep breath, and be prepared to take as long as needed when working on:

  • a new riff
  • a new song
  • a new technique
  • getting something up to tempo
  • being able to accurately execute a syncopated rhythm

I’ve been guilty of it a million times!

Why, oh why are we always in such a rush?

Rushing to learn things does NOT help us GROW FASTER!

It’s actually self-sabotage; when we rush to learn, we play frantically rather than smoothly.

Slow = Smooth and Smooth = Fast

#2 Premature Articulation :x:

Ha! I love that term :point_up_2:t3: for our second consideration of rushing, meaning playing ahead of the beat.

I think we’re all prone to this, and it’s only exacerbated when we get up on stage and the adrenaline starts rushing!

The opposite of playing ahead of the beat is what people refer to as “Playing in the Pocket”.

When we “lay back on the beat” there is a feel and groove that happens that makes people wanna bob their heads, smile, and shake their tail feathers.

The cure for Premature Articulation is to record ourselves playing with some kind of rhythmic accountability, and then listen back criticallyto hear if we’re playing with good time.

Strive to have 80% of your practice time be with one of these forms of rhythmic accountability, like playing along with:

:point_right: a record

:point_right: a jam track

:point_right: a metronome

:point_right: while taking a steady walk

:point_right: or best of all, with other musicians who have a great sense of time

And to turbo-charge your growth, record yourself and listen back critically. Rushing is also a symptom of the #2 Beginner Mistake…

:two: Playing Tense

Tension is the enemy of mastery

Relaxation is the key to any technique you wanna master.

How many times have I been working on getting a song or a lick up to speed only to realize every muscle in my body is tense! :joy: Whenever I catch myself like this I chuckle and think: When will I ever learn?

Invariably, as soon as I relax, I get much better results.

The secret to relaxation is the same fundamental skill for harmonica excellence:


Taking a nice deep breath, and even better voicing the exhale with a slight “ahhh” or something like that helps our bodies to relax, and this is gonna help accelerate our growth.

The main place where beginners put self-defeating tension is in THE LIPS.

Having the lips RELAXED, and deep on the harmonica cover plates so that the moist inner-portion of the lips is in contact with them, is the only way to get a good lips seal that leads to a beautiful and compelling tone on the harmonica.

:one: Playing too hard

This is the #1 mistake that beginners make on the harmonica.

Instead of breathing through the harmonica, they heave through the harmonica! Remember:

Breathe, DON’T Heave!


Try blowing the flame of a candle strong enough to make it move, but not so strong you blow it out, and THAT is the kind of force we wanna have when breathing through the harmonica:

:white_check_mark: STEADY and CONTINUOUS airflow.

:x: NOT WILD and FRENETIC heaving.

Paul Butterfield, who I think of as a harmonica POWERHOUSE, advised us to practice like we’re trying to play too quietly for people to hear. Why? This fosters BREATH CONTROL.

When you get in front of people, you’re naturally always gonna play harder.

Speaking of playing in front of people… It’s one of the ways to turbo-charge your growth, and this time of year you can do it while spreading holiday cheer.


I am such a newbie. Been in the course for a little while and know all 5 of these mistakes you mention. I think the tension is my biggest hang up. I will struggle and then realize I’m extremely tense. At my old age I may not play well yet, but having a great time. Really glad I found the B2B course.


Glad to hear you’re digging the course! Tension is my biggest hangup too. That and playing too hard. (And they’re related!)


I try to relax, take a breath and start great. Then about half way ( or kess) I realize I’m really tense and not following proper form. It is one of my biggest obstacles. That’s why I keep at it.